After tendering his resignation to a confused and protesting Commander Ethael, Belihn hurried to his mother’s suites to tell her what he had done. The news would soon make the rounds at Court, so he did not want her surprised or disconcerted in any way. Belihn slunk along little used passageways and stairwells, avoiding courtiers and hangers on and clan members. As he made his way up to the fifth floor of the castle, he thought of the different countries and where he wanted to apply as a mercenary. Tjish.un paid well and were beautiful, brave people. He was related to the King of South Torahn through his father’s line, so that was a possibility also. Caste laws in South Torahn were relaxed and had fallen out of favor. Ynha also had a powerful army, as did Yllysia. He smiled without mirth. Becoming an Yllysian mercenary would be especially ironic, considering the strained history between Yllysia and North Torahn. He thought of Deyiansh, Mekh and even R’Nonay, although he balked at the idea of serving a despot. Still, R’Nonay paid their soldiers more than any other nation in the known world.
He made it to his mother’s suites and the guards outside her door allowed him entrance without announcing him.
His mother and sisters were in the sitting room, knitting.
Queen Divita glanced up when he stepped into the room. “Belihn! What brings you?”
Belihn bowed. “My beautiful mother. Can’t I visit you just to behold your beauteous countenance?”
Divita blushed and smiled softly at him.
Tifa snorted. “He wants something, Aya.”
Ilmi giggled at her older sister’s words.
Belihn frowned at his saucy younger sisters and shook his head. “O ye of little faith!”
“Have a seat, son,” Divita murmured. “Tell me why you are here.”
Belihn sobered and took a seat in an armchair across from their couch.
Divita motioned for the nearest servant. The servant poured a measure of mi’disj into a glass and served it to Belihn.
He thanked the servant and glanced at his mother. “I resigned from the army.”
Divita gasped. “And what are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to join a mercenary band,” he told her.
Tifa started. “But that means you’ll leave!”
Divita frowned. “What about your betrothed, child? You mean to leave her behind?”
“I’ll talk to her,” he told his mother and sipped the liqueur. “I had no choice in resigning. The King won’t do anything to change caste laws and he keeps filling the ranks of his army with mercenaries that have no loyalty but to their pockets. When war comes, I want to be on the right side of history. You mark my words, Aya, there will be war. Father has too many detractors.”
Divita took a deep breath and released it. “We are in danger, aren’t we?”
“It might be prudent to move the family under Grandfather’s care in South Torahn,” he told her. “You could petition him. The danger to Father and our family is not immediate, I don’t think.”
“The King of South Torahn is no kin to me,” Divita replied. “It does not sit well with me to beg for protection and then live under his benevolence. These royals, they don’t do anything out of the kindness of their hearts.”
“But he is our grandfather, Aya,” Belihn said. “He will extend you his protection. Besides, he is not an unkind man, nor a bigoted one.”
Divita frowned. “He is the father of Queen Ajla, and she is my enemy at Court.”
Belihn had forgotten that part. He sighed and sat back in his chair. “There is also the Queen of Tjish.un. She is my grandmother through Father’s line. You and Tifa and Ilmi might do well in Tjish.un, considering it is a matriarchy.”
“I can’t leave,” Tifa protested. “My betrothed lives here!”
“Your betrothed has a business in Tjish.un, as I recall,” Belihn told his sister. “He will do what is necessary to protect you, which means he will come with us.”
Divita set her knitting aside and rose. “You have given me much to think about. I was aware your father has his detractors, but not that his rule was in danger.”
“A king’s rule is always in danger,” Belihn told her. “The clans don’t like that a half-Torahni became king. Many of the clans believe Rakah Ys’teis is the true king.”
Divita frowned. “Rakah would never countenance opposing his half-brother.”
“Perhaps not,” Belihn said. “But if the king is killed and his family wiped away…”
He rose and stepped close to her, taking her slender hands in his. “Mother, we can move our entire family to Tjish.un. You can live well there, as can my sisters.”
She shook her head. “The idea of leaving your father…” She sighed. “He is a good friend to me and he elevated me from poverty to queenhood. Leaving smacks of ingratitude.”
“I know this,” he told her patiently. “But you must protect yourself and your children.”
Tifa rose. “As much as I hate the idea of leaving, Mother, Belihn has a point. Father has been poisoned several times. No one has threatened us, but if the king is ousted, they will want to wipe the Tjashensi clan from existence.”
Divita looked helplessly at her oldest son.
He signed. “Mother, your heart is vast. I know you feel grateful to father, but your brood must come first.”
Ilmi sighed. “Grandfather and grandmother, too. And uncle and auntie and their spouses and children. We can purchase a mansion in the capital of Tjish.un or some smaller city and all live together.”
Divita put her hands out, palms out. “I’ll think on it.” She gazed into Belihn’s eyes. “I promise.”
Tifa stood from her seat. “When are you signing up with a mercenary band?”
“Tomorrow,” he told her. “My resignation gave my commanding officer a month to find a replacement for me. I will let the Tjish.unen ambassador know that I will be getting married before being conscripted.”
“You should speak to Alona, son,” his mother said. “She should decide if she wants to be married to you, if it means living abroad.”
“Yes,” he replied and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “I’ll see you later, Aya.”
He made his way through the castle to the bailey. In his haste to get to the stables, he went through the Great Hall. He was almost at the great double doors leading into the bailey, when he heard his name called. He stopped, sighing under his breath, and turned.
A handsome fop of a fellow separated from a group of young men and made his way to where Belihn stood. He held a pale silk handkerchief in his hand as a sort of affectation. Belihn refrained from rolling his eyes. The man was dressed in gaudy clashing colors of violet and yellow velvet and satin. He was slender and graceful, with the black hair and gray eyes of the clans.
“Ah, if it isn’t the fallen prince,” the man drawled, pressing the handkerchief to his nose as if he smelled something spoiled.
“How may I be of service?” Belihn replied blandly.
The man’s eyes smoldered. “I’m seeking a new servant.”
The group of his friends tittered a few feet away.
Belihn raised a brow. “Are you now?”
The man nodded, his eyes raking hungrily over Belihn’s body. “Yes. And this servant would be placed in my bedchamber, as my personal servant.”
“And you are talking to me for some reason?”
The man flushed darkly, his pale features becoming mottled. “Are you stupid as well as dirty, Belihn Tjashensi?”
One man from the group laughed outright.
“I bathed this morning,” Belihn told him. “And I am not stupid, although you appear to be. My guess is you are some bastard-born child of the clans who has nothing better to do with his time than waste it gossiping and being mean. You are a waste of space, as are the rest of your cronies. You don’t scare me and you don’t insult me, because your opinion matters naught to me. Now, if you are done here–“
Belihn spun on his heels and stalked away.
“You’ll be put in your place soon enough, Tjashensi!” the other spat malevolently.
Hurrying to the stables, he had his bahil saddled and soon was cantering over the castle’s moat bridge and unto the boulevard that would take him to the nouveau riche neighborhoods. From there, it was simple to find the Oh’nahry residence. At the mansion’s entrance, a servant told him the patriarch of the house was in town on business. Belihn asked to speak to Alona and the servant bid him enter the foyer and closed the heavy door behind him.
“I shall find my mistress,” the servant murmured and hurried away.
Belihn paced as he waited for Alona, but it was not Alona who came down to meet him. It was Missus Oh’nahry.
Igina Oh’nahry hurried to where he stood in the foyer. “To what do we owe this visit, Captain?”
Belihn bowed to her. “I wanted to inform you and your husband that I have resigned from the army and will be joining a Tjish.unen mercenary band. I am having my family moved to Tjish.un for their protection; I would like Alona to go with them.”
Igina Oh’nahry gasped. “Has ought happened?”
“No, ma’am. I did not mean to frighten you. My father has his detractors, ma’am, and he could lose his throne to one of the other clans. I just want to make sure my family is safe.”
She released a breath. “Your father is a strong king, child. I wouldn’t worry.”
“That may be, ma’am. But I will be living in Tjish.un and I would like my wife to be with me. I would need your husband’s and your permission to take her with me.”
Igina Oh’nahry’s expression softened. “I’m sure my husband will say that is your right, once you are married. A wife follows her husband.”
“Would Alona be amenable to moving?”
Igina Oh’nahry dimpled. “She has no say in the manner, your Highness.”
He bit back an impatient retort and bowed. “May I speak with her?”
Igina frowned but nodded. “I’ll fetch her myself.”
When she was gone, he began pacing once more. Tjish.un. A mostly arid land filled with golden and red sands. Cities dotted along the banks of the great Kahi River. He wondered if he would miss the seasons, the snow, the changing colors on deciduous trees. He wondered if he would miss North Torahn.
Belihn turned and bowed. “Miss Alona. I must speak to you.”
“Of course,” she replied smoothly and presented her arm. “A turn around the gardens?”
“Lead the way.”
They made their way outside, where the afternoon was cold but bright with sunshine. She wore a woolen tunic and long skirt and went barefoot but showed no discomfort of the cold.
“I am leaving the North Torahni army and joining in Tjish.un,” he told her without preamble.
She gaped at him. “When did you decide this?”
“Today, Alona. My father will do nothing about the caste laws for fear of igniting civil war. I have very little loyalty left for him.”
“I see,” she said. She gazed into his eyes. “And you wish me to come with you or are you breaking our engagement?”
“That is up to you, girl,” he told her. “I would like you to come with me, but I don’t have a right to expect you to uproot your life to follow me to a distant land where you know no one.”
She took his hand in both of hers. “I wouldn’t have to dress as a boy in Tjish.un, though, would I? Tjish.un is a matriarchy. Women have more rights there; I could be an artist in my own right there.”
“Pity,” he said. “I was looking forward to seeing you dressed like a boy.”
She blushed and laughed, eliciting a smile from him in return.
“You’re silly!” she proclaimed. “I will go with you.”
“Good,” he said. “We will leave within the half year. I would like to be married first by a priest of the Goddess.”
She nodded. “Kahl might come with us.”
He cocked his head. “Kahl?”
“He told me of your proposal,” she explained. “I don’t mind if you want him as your lover, your Highness. We are both atoliy after all.”
“What about you?” he asked.
“I’m sure I can find a companion in Tjish.un. I’m not overly worried about that.”
She walked him to his bahil and watched as he mounted. “I will tell my father.”
He nodded. “You can talk to Kahl as well. By the way, you must address me by name. We are to be wed soon.”
She blushed but curtsied. “As you wish.”
Belihn made his way to the center of town and to Ryeo’h Thalnel’s offices. Once he had stabled his bahil, he made his way to the business and, at the front desk, asked to speak to Irai’h Asjur. He had been waiting a few minutes only before Irai’h strode out of the back of the building through a wide doorway.
“Belihn? Is anything the matter?”
Belihn shook his head. “Can you take a break? I must speak with you.”
Irai’h indicated the front door. “There is a tea house close to this building. I could use a break. Come.”
When they reached the tea house, they ordered two southern teas and sat down near the bank of windows.
As they waited for their teas, Irai’h placed his forearms on the table and leaned forward. “What is it?”
“I’m leaving North Torahn,” Belihn told him.
Irai’h frowned. “What happened?”
“I got into another argument with the king. I demanded changes and he refused.” Belihn sighed and rubbed his forehead with a cold hand. “I can’t blindly follow him anymore, Irai’h. He made promises that he has reneged on. It’s embarrassing and dishonorable. He treats his common soldiers like they have no value, paying far below the salaries of mercenaries, refusing to allow them to rise above the rank of lieutenant. It’s unfair, unjust, and cowardly.”
Irai’h looked around, but there were few patrons there and no one was paying them any heed.
“Lower your voice, your Highness,” he said. “I understand your frustration, but couldn’t you work on him on the behalf of commoners?”
“I’ve been ‘working’ on him for five years, Irai’h!”
Irai’h sat back as the serving boy set the tray with two mugs on the table.
When the boy had departed, Irai’h picked up his mug. “I see your point. The king is not a coward, but he is misguided. He is surrounded by aristocrats who advise him poorly.”
Belihn said nothing as he sipped his sweet, milky, spicy tea. Until very recently, he had been one of the King’s advisor, albeit an unofficial one.
Irai’h sighed. “When are you leaving?”
“Within the half year. I have to attend my cousin’s wedding in South Torahn. I will leave from there.”
Irai’h smiled sadly at him. “I was looking forward to bedding you.”
Belihn blushed. “I did, too.”
“I like a man of principles,” Irai’h rejoined. “You are both comely and courageous. You are willing to uproot your life for your beliefs. I admire that.”
Belihn leaned forward and lowered his voice. “You think I am wrong about father being ousted?”
Irai’h shook his head. “There is a lot of discontent in the army and among civilians. I don’t think you are far off.”
Belihn nodded firmly and sat back. “I thought so. I tried to tell the king that civil war would cleanse the city-state and allow for needed change, but he is hung up on the deaths of many being on his head.”
“Sometimes decisions have to be made that require violence.”
Belihn nodded and sipped his tea.
Irai’h sighed. He set aside his empty mug and rose. “I must get back to work. I look forward to dinner at Ryeo’h’s home tomorrow. You’re coming, I hope?”
Belihn rose. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
As they made their way out of the teahouse, Irai’h looked at Belihn. “You must keep in touch, Belihn. I think things are going to change for the better; patience is needed most of all.”
“That I have precious little of, I’m afraid.”
Irai’h grinned. “I am learning that about you.”